Guantánamo. The name reverberates around the world. Everyone knows it as a U.S. Naval Base and a humiliating thorn in the side of Castro’s Cuba. In fact, Guantánamo is also both a city and province, which tapers eastward to Punta de Maisí, the easternmost point of the island. The province is almost wholly mountainous. Except for a great scalloped bowl surrounding the town of Guantánamo, the uplands push up against a barren coastal plain.
The wild eastern shore and secluded mountains offer fantastic opportunities for hiking. Uniquely, traces of indigenous culture linger, notably around Baracoa, Cuba’s oldest city, near where a ball court similar to those of the Mayan culture has been discovered. Baracoans claim that Columbus first set foot in Cuba here and left a wooden cross (now on view in the town’s cathedral) as a memento.
Whatever the truth, it’s undisputed that the Spanish conquistadores who came on Columbus’s heels established the first town in Cuba at Baracoa. The town retains an aged colonial feel in a setting that any other city would die for.
Today a great part of the mountain region is protected within a system of reserves slowly being developed for ecotourism. These wildlife-rich mountains harbor rare plant and bird species and polymites (snails that haul fabulously colored shells on their backs).
The northeast coast and north-facing mountains around Baracoa are the rainiest region in Cuba. By contrast, valleys along the southern coast are pockets of aridity, and cacti grow in the lee of Cuba’s wettest slopes.
Alas, Baracoa took a brutal beating at the hands of Hurricane Ike, which came ashore here in September 2008, devastating the town.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition